Sometimes backlash is a terrible thing. Don’t get me wrong here: I’m all for reasoned argument. You certainly won’t find me blithely accepting that something is good just because everyone else says so. The kind of backlash I’m talking about, however, is rarely reasoned and certainly not the curtain-walled bastion of choice it claims to be. You see, once in a while a Really Good Thing(tm) is produced. People look at the Really Good Thing(tm) and say, “My goodness. That’s a really good thing.” They might even buy it. They may tell other people about it. They could well go to an internet forum and write about it. Others look at the Really Good Thing(tm). They may agree with the first group of people. Sure enough, there are criticisms. Nothing is perfect, right? But still, when all’s said and done, it’s a Really Good Thing(tm). A generally positive consensus is reached. Heads are nodded in satisfaction.
But as that positivity is snowballing the backlash is waiting. It rears it’s ugly head and stares grumpily at the positivity. The kind of backlash I’m talking about hates positivity. It cannot abide it. With one powerful leap of totally unjustified criticisms and needlessly aggressive arguments, the blacklash lands with clawed feet directly on the snowball of positivity, crushing it out of existence. The backlash, satisfied in it’s mission to reduce every opinion to mediocrity, slinks away with a self-satisfied smirk. Later that night it cries itself to sleep in it’s cave.
Why am I going on at such length about this kind of backlash? Well today I’m going to talk about Mansions of Madness. And Mansions of Madness is a Really Good Thing(tm).
Published by Fantasy Flight at the beginning of 2011, Mansions of Madness is a new take on the classic world of H.P. Lovecraft, as explored in the popular Fantasy Flight monolith Arkham Horror. While Arkham Horror is a very broad, sprawling game that takes place throughout the entirety of the city of Arkham and beyond, Mansions of Madness is a much closer, much more intimate story about just one building. This building isn’t always a mansion. Sometimes it’s a chapel, or underground tunnels, or an old school house. You play the part of an investigator, sent to solve the particular riddle of the given location. Or you play the part of the Keeper: the antagonist of the game.
This is where MoM differs significantly from it’s big brother, Arkham Horror. As you’ll be aware, Arkham Horror is a totally co-operative experience. Not so for MoM. Here, one player must take up the mantle of the Keeper and in doing so cast themselves as the villain of the piece. This is a concept that made me feel right at home, since my love for board gaming began with the likes of Hero Quest and Space Crusade, both of which belong firmly in the ‘One Vs. Many’ genre. The investigators must try to achieve their goal while the keeper must try to stop them. The twist here being that the Keeper starts the game knowing exactly what the win conditions are, while the investigators have no idea and must piece together the objective by exploring the location for clues.
While they explore, the investigators are constantly in danger. Weird things might happen around them. They might notice some eyes flashing briefly in a dark corner that frightens them out of their wits. The very house might conspire against them, with creaking floorboards trying to trip them up, or they might face a very immediate danger in the form of one of MoM’s many monsters. Eventually, if they’re good, they’ll gather enough clues to work out what’s going on and prevent it. If not, they might be killed… or worse. True to the Arkham Horror theme, investigators posses both stamina and sanity ratings. If they drop to zero sanity, the Keeper can play all sorts of nasty effects on them. Perhaps they might suddenly believe that their friends are in fact enemies and open fire or, even worse, they might turn the gun on themselves. Sometimes you’re better off dead, after all…
What’s interesting about MoM is it really exposes two different aspects of gaming and tries to weave them together as tightly as it can. Consider two fictional gamers. Let’s call the first one Tacticus McRulesathon. Tacticus loves the strategy of boardgaming. He loves learning the rules inside and out, playing within them to an exacting degree and outwitting his opponents. He’s there to experience the mechanics of the game. He wants them to have depth. He also wants them to be flexible, so that he can do interesting and intelligent things that will increase his chances of winning. He wants other players to be able to do the same, so that there is a good challenge. The story doesn’t matter to Tacticus. He doesn’t care about frame of reference. He just wants numbers and systems.
Now let’s take a look at his friend, Narrativus Tellastoryus. Narrativus comes to the table to experience a story. He wants a game that takes a character or characters across a compelling journey. He wants a beginning, a middle and an end. He wants his choices to affect the story as much as possible. He also wants other players to be able to do the same, because in that way the story is enriched. He doesn’t care about following the rules to the letter. In fact, he’s quite happy to bend, break or disregard them if it means a better story is told.
Of course, Tacticus and Narrativus don’t exist, and there are few players whose tastes lie at such polar extremes. Most of us take a little from column A and a little from column B, in varying amounts. MoM is a game that tries very, very hard to please both of these fictional players. In doing so, it almost ends up alienating both of them. Almost. Let me explain.
MoM is a game that drips with theme. It oozes theme. Every pore is crammed with theme. As you can see from the pictures, it’s got Fantasy Flight’s typically lush production values to help it along in this regard, but the writing is what really tries to draw you in to the dark world of Cthulu. Every scenario has an introduction, every clue card has a piece of text to read out and every combat card has a detailed visceral description of the inevitably violent outcome. When you take the time to read and savour all of these elements, MoM can be incredibly immersive. The problem is that it’s possible to ignore them completely and skip to the result. That’s okay, if you don’t want to indulge your inner Narrativus, but it misses a huge chunk of the effort that has clearly gone in to developing the game.
It’s not a total disaster if you ignore the narrative elements because beneath MoM’s wonderfully dark atmosphere is a very simple and very robust game mechanic. There were initially some big problems with misprinted cards but these have now been fixed by errata and FAQs that prevent the Keeper from being too exploitative. Every turn, the investigators may move and take an action, such as running, shooting, exploring or whatever. On the Keeper’s turn, he or she receives threat tokens, and these are the currency with which he or she can activate a suite of horrific abilities from performing dark rituals to summoning an axe wielding maniac. One of my favourite Keeper action cards is called ‘Evil Presence’ and it’s a card that does nothing to the actual board, but which steadily grows the Keepers power. It’s a fine example of a card that is great both thematically and mechanically.
The dichotomy between the elements of tactical and narrative satisfaction comes about when discussing how the Keeper role should be played. Many players feel that it is such a powerful role that, if played to the hilt to win, it will inevitably crush the investigators. These same players argue that a responsible Keeper should be played more like a D&D dungeon master, providing just enough challenge to the players to make them feel like they’ve accomplished something. I think this tension arises simply because the game is so theme intense. That immersive, well written nature makes it feel much closer to a co-operative story telling experience then, say, a game of Hero Quest. That’s why I think some players feel somehow cheated by it. It has the unique capacity to frustrate specific camps of players - those that swing hard to either the Tacticus or Narrativus end of the spectrum - simply because it is trying so hard to be something they will both love.
As for my own opinion? I would tend to agree that an intelligently played Keeper is a force to be reckoned with, particularly when facing off against new players. Ultimately, though, it’s important to be aware of your players expectations before you sit down and play. If they want you to go all out to win, MoM caters for that. If they would rather you held back a little so that they could enjoy the story in a more relaxed way, you can do that too without any overt hand holding. Responsible Keeping makes this game.
And it is a fine, fine game. A Really Good Thing(tm). My favourite board game of the year, and certainly my favourite Cthulu themed game thus far. Even in this lengthy piece there’s so much I haven’t mentioned. Like the awesome plastic miniatures or the actual physical puzzles that you have to figure out…
…or the way the game’s pace is dictated by a wonderful ‘clock ticking down’ event card mechanic. I honestly can’t recommend it enough.
You can find out more about it (and it’s forthcoming expansion which I will cover later) here. Also, here’s the official FF promotional video for the game:
p.s. I want to thank everyone that visits this blog, comments, likes, reblogs and sends messages. Please feel free to ask me anything using the button on the front page. I love talking to you guys and I reply to all my messages. Happy gaming!